Death Valley National Park. This national park has so many preconceived notions. It’s hot, it’s dry, it’s miserable. Shit, the word “death” is in its name. But is it really all those things? The park still receives an overwhelming amount of visitors every blistering summer with daytime temperatures averaging over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. As the lowest and hottest national park in the United States, you’d think that people would stay away during the summer. But maybe the heat is an appeal. The only thing I knew about this park before visiting was that it was hot. But during January, the heat isn’t there. During the winter, all preconceived notions about Death Valley do not apply.
Is there more to Death Valley than 100+ degree days?
We didn’t experience the heat. We didn’t experience the sun. It may be considered a non-stereotypical Death Valley trip, I suppose. We saw another Death Valley. We felt cool temperatures, spotted snowfall on the high mountains hidden by gray skies, and even came across a spot of precipitation on our car’s windshield. A winter in Death Valley strays from it’s infamous summer days.
Time on the Road
The cool air hit us right as we stepped off the plane in Las Vegas, Nevada. Our decision to bring jackets, gloves and beanies was obviously a good. Gray clouds blanketed the city, and rain was on the forecast. I dreaded the idea of setting up a tent in the rain or the dark. So once that rental car agreement was secured, we hit the road hard. Within two hours, we would meet Death Valley, which straddles the border of Nevada and California. I imagined tumble weeds, rattlesnakes, sandy desert views and lots and lots of cacti.
The lengthy highway drive to the park boasts 50 shades of sand, only the green Saguaro dot the landscape with color. There is always a sense of belonging when I find myself in the desert. The hipster in me loves a good cactus picture, while the environmentalist in me envies a succulent’s resilience and absolute stubbornness to survive in this impossible environment.
Time on the road in Death Valley offered more than expected. In my opinion, driving the roads here is a popular activity among park-goers. If you’re not on a backcountry dirt road, then you’re finding yourself either on a long, straight highway or a twisty scenic byway.
For us, we enjoyed all the driving options during our stay here from the off-road trip through Titus Canyon to the shockingly beautiful drive to Artist’s Palette. We rarely saw a single soul on the road at dawn. But once the day broke, Jeeps of tourists were found slowly moving through the four-wheel drive trails. Besides at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, the off-road trails were where we saw the most signs of human life.
The Desert Quiet
My city ears were not accustomed to the quiet desert air. Back home in Colorado, ambulance sirens, the honking of geese, my neighbors’ bickering, and the wind whipping my windows were my lullaby. Here however, there were no sounds during the night. No coyote howls. No random critters rustling. No wind whatsoever. No other campers in sight.
You’d think I would be able to sleep, as there is always something comforting about sleeping in a tent (for me, at least). But when the only noise to drift off to was the blood pulsing in my head, I could only focus on my ringing ears. I also found the quiet to be so alarming that it amazed me. I recall bringing my hand out of my sleeping bag, it’s warmth meeting the cool desert night air, to snap my fingers together near my ear. Ya know, just to make sure I wasn’t deaf, only to realize that the desert is a trickster.
There is always a low point of a trip. But in Death Valley, the lowest point comes highly recommended. Known as Badwater Basin, this salt flat is the lowest spot in America at 282 feet below sea level. We spent way too much time here, as we searched for the most pristine salt formation for an Instagram picture. We are millennials in a desert after all. But spending time here was worth every second. We hopscotched through the formations carefully, because destroying something so outstanding would be a travel foul.
The desert doesn’t remain as quiet though when humans are in the salt flats. The crunch, crunch, crunch of the desert floor covered with salt crumbles was as distinguishable as the landscape. And hell, I would be a liar if I told you I didn’t taste a small salt rock. I’m just checking okay? The desert is a trickster, remember?
High and Dry
Flash floods are real here, or so I’ve heard. But for us, as much as the dark clouds were so menacing, we didn’t experience desert rain. It really was just another way that Death Valley played a joke on us. We drove through mountainous terrain in Titus Canyon and hiked through Fall Canyon, all while I was on edge about being swept away by a winter thunderstorm. Death Valley: the national park that keeps you on your toes.
Contrary to our common choice of an uphill hike, we decided on Fall Canyon, a lowland hike towered by canyon walls. Although it was a nice grade, we were obviously walking on what was once a river bed. Therefore the trail was covered with loose gravel and pebbles, and our footsteps became yet another human sound bouncing off the canyon’s sides, adding to the desert quiet. Walking through a trail of pebbles gets old fast. It’s hard keeping a steady pace, and like walking through sand, you’re simply trudging unattractively. We laughed at how long a mile took us to hike with this kind of trail condition. The choo, choo, choo sound of my footsteps still rings well in my mind as I ran towards the canyon’s outlet. I felt nothing but relief when the canyon spit us out, when we were finally granted a view of the high mountains coated with snow.
Although Death Valley National Park is where the lowest spot in the nation is, surrounding these lowlands are massive 10,000-11,000-foot mountains. During this winter trip, I did not expect the beauty of the highlands, the mystery of the dark skies, and the amount of peace the desert can bring. We not only beat the heat and the crowds by visiting in January, we also experienced a Death Valley that exceeds its expectation. Some may refer to this area of the United States as a desert wasteland. The quietness did bring an eerie aura to the place. But the gorgeous stretches of road brought back all hope that was lost. For me, a winter trip to this wasteland is worth every minute you waste here.